If the prospect of another journey to the Planet of the Apes holds as much appeal for you as a rotten banana, you’re not alone.
Tim Burton’s flung-poo 2001 remake squandered a lot of the goodwill amassed by the original franchise which, between the years of 1968 and 1975, yielded five movies, a live-action TV series, and a Saturday morning cartoon.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is everything Burton’s movie wasn’t — smart, exciting and thought-provoking, while operating in the realm of the movies’ great misunderstood monsters.
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Like King Kong and Godzilla before him, audiences will fear the intelligent ape Caesar (played brilliantly via motion-capture animation by Andy Serkis) while also empathizing with his plight.
The film stars James Franco as Will Rodman, a genetics researcher testing a new drug on apes that repairs neural pathways and could potentially cure Alzheimer’s. (It’s a personal crusade for Will, whose father Charles — played by John Lithgow — suffers from the disease.)
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The drug seems to be working on a lab ape known as “Bright Eyes” (that’s what the intelligent apes called Charlton Heston in the original movie, and it’s one of about a dozen shout-outs to the original “Apes” films here), but when she goes on a rampage, drug company exec Jacobs (David Oyelowo) shuts down the program.
Bright Eyes didn’t freak out because of the drug, however; she was merely protecting her baby, the one that Will takes home, raises on his own, and names Caesar. And while Caesar has benefited from his mother’s exposure to the drug, Will secretly brings the experimental formula home and start giving it to Charles, who seems to be improving.
As Caesar gets older, Will’s girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto, playing a zoo vet so underwritten that Rosario Dawson’s character in “Zookeeper” feels like Dr. Jane Goodall by comparison) warns him that the ape will become strong and violent.
And when a pushy next-door neighbor gets into an altercation with a now-relapsing Charles, Caesar lashes out and winds up getting incarcerated in a primate facility where he learns the law of the jungle — and figures out a way to build an army against the cruel humans.
Plot-wise, “Rise” most resembles “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” in which talking ape Caesar leads his enslaved brothers in a revolt. But while that film was more of a political parable, this new one marries questions about the excesses of genetics research with a tense and suspenseful prison-break story. (The latter mirrors director Rupert Wyatt’s exceptional previous film, “The Escapist.”)
So many contemporary movies have a hard time balancing two things at once — “The Change-Up” treats gross-out gags and midlife romance like they were walking and chewing gum — that it’s a real pleasure to watch “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” unfold, skillfully encompassing sci-fi, action, suspense, and the Will/Caesar relationship, which falls somewhere between parent/child and boy-and-his-dog.
Franco’s not the first actor you’d think of for this kind of movie, but he plays it straightforwardly, handling the role’s emotional moments and its streams of science-babble with ease. (He also knows that, billing aside, this is Serkis’ show all the way.)
Cox, who spear-headed the prison break in “The Escapist,” flips the script by playing the warden of the monkey jail, and if Tom Felton wanted to avoid post–“Harry Potter” typecasting after a decade of playing Draco Malfoy, then perhaps playing Cox’s sadistic, chimp-taunting son wasn’t the way to do it.
With its army of apes, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, “Rise” bites off a lot, effects-wise, but the movie delivers some of the best motion-capture animation since “Avatar.” Nobody gives a performance with ping-pong balls on his face like Andy Serkis, as he previously proved in “King Kong” and the “Lord of the Rings” movies, and here he makes Caesar vulnerable, conflicted, loving, and ultimately terrifying.
It’s not the kind of acting that wins awards, but Serkis’ work here is mesmerizing. (Granted, I miss the old-school methods, where Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall were buried in layers and layers of latex to play the simian stars, but when the CG is this good, it’s hard to complain.)
While there are some minor nits to be picked here — Pinto’s barely-there character, a rare slackening of the pace in the build-up to the big finale, a few too many inside jokes for fans of the original “Apes” series” — “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” feels like a genuine summer surprise.
Who would think that the dog days of August would give us one of the most genuinely appealing big-studio tentpole movies of the year?